Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Labels: Paralyzing or Helpful?

Her name is actually Rachel.

Imagine you're at an art show. Or imagine you're at Japantown, or at the supermarket, or at a bookstore, or an art supply store (because honestly that's likely the only places you'll ever find us). Now imagine that we walk up to you and ask you "what do you do?"

What you're most likely to do, especially if you've never met us in person, is to say "Oh, I'm a ______," where that blank is filled in with your job title. Likely, you're probably going to add in who you work for as well if it's a well-known large company. We very often attribute the question of "what do you do?" to mean "what is your job and what company do you work for?"

For us, that's just another conversation point, but for most people, it's a significant indicator of status. If you're a "CEO at a Fortune 500 company," that (most of society thinks) also means you're important, wealthy, competent, and pretty amazing. Society has taught us to create labels for ourselves and what we do, and the media and our own experiences have influenced what we believe about these labels.

The truth of the matter is that we are and are not what labels make us out to be, and that's why they are so powerful and dangerous at the same time. When we allow others to label us and box us in with their own preconceived notions of what go along with those labels, we begin to believe it and get trapped. We start believing that we're talentless, or poor, or we can also start believing that we're talented, competent, and awesome.

If you work or have worked in the (usually) unglamorous service sector like we have, you'll know that because of your job, people won't take you seriously. It's not seen as a "real job" or a "career," and it can totally make you feel like crap. Monkey will admit that when people who he went to school with would come in to his work, he'd feel a little bit embarrassed that he was still doing retail work while they were driving BMWs and were surgeons and lawyers and researchers and project managers, and all the other job titles that society thinks are super awesome and valuable. However, you can let the labels change you, or you can change the labels. Keep reading and we'll show you how.

In reality, there are probably three things you can do. You can let the label define who you are (don't do it!), you can embrace the labels given to you (easier if it's something you like), or you can change the labels. Because you're awesome, we already know you're not going to let the label define who you are. Even if you've done that in the past, since you're reading this, you now are more educated than you were before, so stop and scratch that option off.

You have two things you can do. You can embrace the labels given or you can change the labels. Let's cover option one: Embracing the labels.

If you're going to embrace the labels given to you, they had better be one that you actually enjoy. Say you're a staff art director at Wizards of the Coast, massive publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: the Gathering, and basically all the geek-tastic, drool-inducing things Monkey loves. You really enjoy your job, and are happy with your life. So what should you do? Hang out with your tribe. When you're with more people who identify as you do, you will reinforce the value of your label.

If this is you, awesome. Continue on and be proud of your label, but stick with us. You might want to do the following exercise anyway to figure out how you can make yourself even more awesome and happy.

Chances are, if you're reading this, you're not 100% happy with the label given to you. Maybe you're a high-salary CEO but you hate your job. Maybe you'd rather be known as an award-winning writer. Maybe you're a barista but would rather be a novelist. Maybe you're a staff art director at Wizards but would rather be a professional athlete or a biologist for the government. Whatever it is, if you're unhappy with the labels given to you, then it's time to change them.

Really, if you know us, any of our magical one-step things is usually a lot more involved than it seems, but here's the single-step method of changing your labels:

Step 1. Give yourself a specific job title that sounds super legit and cool. "Custodian" seems pretty boring compared to "Director of Groundskeeping and Improvements." "Blogger," doesn't quite have the ring of "Weekly columnist for an online publication." Throw this stuff down at parties and people will think you're pretty awesome.

Alternate Step 1. If your job has nothing to do with what you really want to be doing, then just say what you want to be doing, not what you are. We're not telling people to lie and say you're the CEO of Chronicle Books, but you can be the CEO of your own company. Maybe you hold down a retail job or work at a restaurant to pay the bills, but you can still be the owner of a small business at the same time. We're co-founders and owners of Monkey + Seal, an online apparel and design company that specializes in illustrations and screen-printed neckties, and we were all of that even when we both held down retail jobs. You can be the owner of Company XYZ, that specializes in your dream job.

That's it. Yes, we know that you also have to do the work of making a website or some business cards even, or getting a business license, but if you don't start writing your own labels and your own scripts, you'll always be stuck letting other people tell you who you are.

In Eiichiro Oda's manga and anime One Piece (we really need to write a book called "Everything I need to know in life I learned from One Piece), the main protagonist, Monkey D. Luffy constantly introduces himself in this way. "My name is Luffy. I'm going to be the Pirate King." In the world of One Piece, the pirate king is almost a mythical status, one that no one in the past 22 years has achieved. It's a pretty unbelievable thing to say, like claiming to be the best painter in the world, or to be the best writer on the planet, but the way Luffy says it, he damn well believes it, and his strength and determination soon makes believers about everyone he meets.

The point of the One Piece reference is that it is a perfect example of someone taking labels and using it to their advantage. Luffy's belief in his future is so strong that he convinces everyone around him that he really will, despite all initial impressions, end up as the greatest pirate in the world. This determination gathers a crew of equally-determined individuals who together will realize their dreams as one.

When you are writing your next "About" page, or writing your first one, think about who you are and who you want to be. Claim your dreams and your labels proudly and let them become self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you are ready to grab your life and chase your dreams, tell us who you are. Post a comment and say hello. By making a public declaration, you're going to be one step closer to realizing your potential. Yes, it's scary, but if you let fear rule your life, you'll never get anywhere. So we encourage you to do it here and leave a comment introducing yourself, with all the labels you choose, to the world. It's your life, and it's your choice, but if you want to be that person we know you can be, take the first action and step into your new identity.